Superblock hopscotch in Barthelona

Perhaps my critical faculties are just sharper than other peoples’ but I don’t see cause for celebration in Barcelona’s “superblock” plan. While it will be possible to play hopscotch on two-thirds of the streets, crossing the remaining one third will be a game of hopscotch itself.

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There is nothing in the plan to suggest a reduction in car parking, or motor scooter parking spaces. They could in fact double. All the streets where the volumes of traffic are set to be lowered, could switch from parallel parking to 90 degree angle parking. Given every parking space in a city is another reason to drive or ride motor bikes into a city, Barcelona could be on track to have more motorised traffic than ever before.

So, if it is not a plan to reduce traffic volumes, what is it? Well, simply stated, it is a plan to take traffic from this street and that street, and dump the whole lot on the third street along.

Poor Street Number Three! Not only will it have all the traffic of streets One and Two, it will now have cars and motor scooters circling the block for their opportunity to get off of this matrix of ring roads cast like a net across the whole city.

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It might be worth sacrificing Street Three if it could be known, with absolute certainty, that Heaven was about to descend on the 144,000 blessed souls on Streets One and Two. Their likely fate though is purgatory.

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The new bollards that will be planted to stop cars cutting through the middle of the superblocks won’t stop that menace of the Mediterranean, the motor scooter rider, cutting through at top speed to evade being caught. Curbs could be placed there to stop them, but that would stop cyclists as well.

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Which hardly matters since cyclists get nothing from the deal whatsoever. The sales diagrams leave no doubt about that. They don’t show a black grid with a green grid on top. They show a green grid with a black one on top. The black lines are continuous. The green ones are broken. Just as we see in other car-centric cities that have a grid of greenways out of phase with a grid of regular streets (Portland Oregon and Milton Keynes for example), travelling along the traffic calmed routes is like playing hopscotch. In Barcelona two out of three streets will be easy to cross, but make a mistake when crossing the third…

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But at least two thirds of Barcelona’s kids will be able to play actual hopscotch in front of their houses! Well, that is the hope. Motorised traffic has made Barcelona an unattractive place to raise children, and thus an easy place for people to leave in their thirties and forties, right when their earnings have peaked. The problem for parents though is that the superblock concept may end up converting current drivers to motorcycling (because with motorbikes people will be able to transgress the new traffic regime), while the mode that many parents think they need in the city to keep their kids safe, driving, is the one that will be most disadvantaged. Once it is apparent that clowns won’t be activating their block every weekend, painting kids’ faces and handing out dog-shaped balloons, parents could be moving to the suburbs and regions in greater numbers than ever.

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It’s time now to step out of this headspace. The geniuses behind the superblocks concept have spent quite enough time there already and have come up with no more than another traffic management plan than manages to make extra traffic.

barcelona beelonesIf the ground plane were cleared of all encumbrances to cycling (and by that I mean no machines whatsoever, maybe just a few golf carts that fall in behind cyclists), then Barcelona’s short chamfered street grid would mean the actual distances on the ground between points would be scarcely any longer than distances as the crow flies. What a winning combination: short average trip distances, low rainfall, high density and next to no basement garaging.

I often refer to Barcelona when I’m asked to give talks because it so perfectly placed to win the race between cities. If only they could stop though and think systematically. The vehicle that they would win with, counterintuitive though this may seem, is the bicycle.

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Let Barcelona be one giant superblock with one proper ring road around the outside and let that ring road define a non-motorised city within. This way one kind of street (one with no street lights, curbs, bollards, signage or markings), would deliver what the superblock promises with two kinds of streets: liveability at the scale of the neighbourhood and connectivity at the scale of the city.